This article originally appeared on VICE UK. You may have missed it, because you were watching Undercover or Louis Theroux or making love to your significant other, but last night was Queen Elizabeth II's 90th birthday celebrations, presented in full HD by ITV. The idea was simple enough: Ant and Dec, both trying their hardest not to sound too Geordie, were comperes for a star-studded evening of music, moonlight and monarchical madness. The entrance to Windsor Castle was packed with devoted civilians, waving small plastic union jacks and scoffing coolboxes full of canned Pimms and scotch eggs. The Queen was present, flanked by her progeny: the Prince of Wales and his second wife, the good-looking ones with the babies and the ginger one who dressed up as a Nazi once. Behind them of course, Princesses Beatrix and Poppy or Eugene or Fanny or whatever, along with their father Prince Geoff, or something. There was an orchestra, a choir, and Alan Titchmarsh. In many ways it was every other event of this kind you've ever seen on television. Gary Barlow sang a song from his new musical which is called something like Tonight's Got a Feeling Something Special is Going to Happen in the Magic Air and then drove off in red, white and blue Aston Martin. Jess Glynne performed Littlewoods advert anthem "Hold My Hand" and the butler from Downton Abbey spoke about the Queen's childhood in a voice so posh it sounded like he was gargling quails eggs. So far so ITV. It sat somewhere between the Royal Variety Show and Last Night of the Proms – perfect fodder for your auntie who collects saucers with Prince George's face on.
State occasions like this normally fall into two categories. There are the aforementioned gala evenings, normally featuring Katherine Jenkins, fireworks and maybe some bagpipes; and then there are the poe-faced military parades we see around Remembrance Day featuring lots of big hats and guns, but very little in the way of zippy one-liners and Olly Murs. But what ITV tried to pull off last night was a notable first: both at once. Light entertainment and heavy artillery.
For example, at one point, Martin Clunes took to the stage to tell us just how much the Queen loved animals, while a legion of stern-looking blokes with pointy helmets rode stallions across the arena. We were introduced to the Royal Cavalry of Oman—cue stock "Middle Eastern music"—and then riders from Canada and Azerbaijan. In what was probably an attempt to "diversify" the ceremony ended up calling on legions of Her Majesty's subjects for a sort of post-colonial humblebrag.
So what started off as seeming like a relatively innocuous Alfie-Boe-with-bugles affair gradually turned into a stableboy's dick-swinging contest. It seemed for one night we were all supposed to pretend the British Empire was still the mightiest power on God's earth, with the military might of every colony on display. Even the plucky Chilean Huasos! Huzzah! And it wasn't just horses; there were cows, ponies, dogs, and a goat in a cape, all trouncing around in circles for the entertainment of a largely disinterested pensioner. It was a ceremony of pre-war proportions, made to feel like a talent competition. Live animals were forced to run in all number of directions, drummers blistered their fingers and James Blunt sang a song that genuinely featured the lyric, "Your love is like a soldier, loyal till you die."
It was then, watching Kylie Minogue singing "I Believe in You" while a French horse-whisperer encouraged the audience to laugh at a feckless, fat little pony as it tried to keep up with some fully grown horses, that I realised what ITV had tried to do. They'd attempted the impossible, the ITV-ification of monarchy. It was Britain's Got Talent (and Shitloads of International Clout), I'm a Still Powerful Nation Get Me Out of Here, Keith Lemon's Military Juice.
By popping Ant and Dec in at regular intervals, the programmers had attempted to normalise and soften pomp, ceremony, and military tradition that is symbolic of inherited rule and international conflict. But hahahaha, one's shorter than the other.
Look, I know some people (your dad) fuck with this. Some people (your dad) fuck with "Bittersweet Symphony" soundtracking montages of carriages and handshakes, Damian Lewis waxing lyrical about the Commonwealth, and a number of Fijian drummers that provoked someone somewhere (your dad) to say "ooh aren't their skirts funny" at their televisions last night. And actually, if people (your dad) really do get that much joy out of somebody else's birthday, then credit to them.
Still, it wasn't an easy task making this extraordinary display of international arrogance somehow look lovely. Just because the Australian army have learnt to play a few Kylie Minogue songs doesn't make anything about this institution less creepy. All the evening needed was a sketch about home rule featuring the cast of Mrs Brown's Boys, and a back and forth between Romesh Ranganathan and Prince Harry about the Sri Lankan independence movement, and it would have been Colonialism: the Musical (On Ice).
That said, don't forget to switch over to ITV2 for Britain's Got More Colonies with Joe Swash.
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